Dvorak 8 was the first score I ever went out and bought and subsequently tried to analyze. We had played the work in my youth orchestra under the guidance of James Smith, a truly great musician and orchestral trainer. I’d always been interested in conducting, but the transformation James had made in the orchestra working on this piece for his first concert was too compelling for me- I had seriously caught the bug.
Only a little more than a year later, it was Dvorak 8 which almost turned me off to conducting and orchestra playing for good, when I played it on my first concert with the Indiana University orchestra program. In spite of the fact that the IU band was the most talented group of musicians I’d ever sat in, the concert was dreadful, the rehearsals awful and the whole experience completely depressing. One got the feeling that the whole school thought of orchestra playing, orchestral music and conducting as a complete joke, an impression that only got stronger during my four years there, although that mindset that has now changed there for the better.
I’m still using my old score of the 8th, and it is interesting to look at my faded markings, especially in light of my recent essay on score marking. Although I really didn’t know what I was doing and had never had anyone explain it to me, I think I did okay- maybe we take this whole stick waving business too seriously. Seriously, I think the real lesson is in how much about study I was able to learn from having rehearsed the piece under a truly great conductor.
Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, written over just less than a month in 1889, is a classic example of a piece of music in which a simple and direct exterior hides a very sophisticated and multi-layered interior.
It is a work that is often described as “sunny” as well as “songful,” “warm,” and “optimistic,” and, in many important ways, it is all of those things. However, it is also his most harmonically and structurally ambitious symphonic work, his most modern, and beneath its sunny exterior lie moments of great pathos and even grotesquerie.
Dvorak himself said that in this piece he wanted “to write a work different from my other symphonies, with individual ideas worked out in a new manner.” Dvorak’s intentions would have been clear to his contemporaries just from the title alone- Symphony no. 8 in G Major. No major composer since Haydn had published a symphony in G Major- perhaps because it was considered a key more appropriate for folk music and song than a symphony. As it turned out, Dvorak’s intent was to write a symphony of folk music and song, so for him G Major was the perfect choice.
The Eighth begins with a hint of darkness to come, with a long, lyrical and melancholy melody played by the cellos. His later Cello Concerto was final proof that no composer ever understood my instrument better than Dvorak, but in this symphony the cellos carry so much of the melodic weight that they take on the role of something like a narrator or a Greek chorus. At each key moment in the symphony, it is the cellos who tell us where we are. Interestingly, this is a role the cellos would reprise in the next G Major symphony by a major composer- Mahler’s Fourth.
These early bars are full of the ambiguity that will haunt the symphony- the title page tells us that it is a symphony in G Major, but this is music in G minor. The tempo marking says “Allegro con brio,” but, written in cut time, this opening tune could be in Andante. Is it a slow introduction? Is the entire symphony to be a voyage from dark to light?
The flute quickly provides some answers, with a simple, triadic melody that is very squarely in G major- the first of many tunes in the symphony that will be notable for their childlike directness. It could be a folk song, or, more specifically, a children’s song.
The first movement of this symphony is the most elaborate and complex symphonic movement Dvorak ever wrote, a huge span of musical architecture anchored to the three occurrences of the cello theme from the beginning- a melody that he never significantly develops or modulates. It ends in raucous good spirits and blazing sunshine.
The Adagio is very much a piece of Nachtmusik- the G major sunshine gives way to C minor austerity. Musicologist Michael Steinberg sees in the key and structure of the movement a clear homage to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica, only in this work Dvorak actually begins in the wrong key- E flat Major- before moving to the “real” key of C minor a few bars in. Beethoven does the opposite. At the heart of the movement is a Maggiore episode built around another of the children’s songs that make up so much of the symphony’s soul. Dvorak’s orchestration in this movement is particularly vivid and evocative, and, much more sparse than in Dvorak’s earlier slow movements.
The scherzo is in G minor, and begins with a long, soulful melody which is built entirely of descending scales set in descending sequences- hardly the stuff of a naïve, upbeat symphony. The second theme is also made entirely of descending lines, only now Dvorak uses a chromatic scale, which only intensifies the sense of darkness in the music- it is a melodic gesture used since Bach to symbolize falling tears. The Trio couldn’t be a more dramatic contrast- this is the most childlike of all the children’s tunes in the symphony. What does it mean that Dvorak brackets it with the tears of the main Scherzo?
The finale, which begins with a bracing fanfare in the trumpets, is made up of a series of wild variations on another children’s tune initially stated, you guessed it, by the cellos. The theme’s first eight bars are a summing up of everything in the symphony so far- an ascending triad (the same notes as the flute theme in the first movement) and a descending sequence. After another raucous climax, the original version of the theme returns one last time for another series of variations, again led by the cellos. Now the music has turned deeply inward and profoundly bittersweet. Though staying firmly in major, this is Dvorak at his most heartbreaking- one gets the feeling that Dvorak is facing the prospect of letting go of something very dear to him in this music.
Perhaps there is a more personal reason for the use of all these melodies which so powerfully evoke childhood and naivety. Dvorak himself, only twelve years earlier, had been forced to bury three of his own children within in months of each other. It has even been suggested that the three notes of the G major triad which make up the main motive of the symphony are symbolic of Dvorak’s three children. Like Mahler (who’s own G Major symphony was itself a meditation on the passing of a child- surely Dvorak’s symphony was a model for him), Dvorak’s associations with the music of childhood could only be conflicted. However, unlike Mahler, Dvorak was always determined to face the most painful loss with hope, whether in the Stabat Mater, the work in which he most directly faced the death of his children, the Cello Concerto, in which he faced the death of the love of his life, Josefina, or here, in the Eighth Symphony. Having said goodbye for the last time, the music storms back to life, and ends in the highest possible spirits.
c. 2006 Kenneth Woods